What does a technological utopia look like? What effect will AI have on work and how we perceive it?
Going back to the industrial revolution, and especially following the invention of the assembly line, machines have taken over more and more human jobs. This is not a bad thing in itself, as there are many jobs better left to machines, because they are too dangerous, disgusting, or repetitive for humans. And of course, machines work faster, increasing profit for businesses adopting them.
Through evolving technology, fewer people have had to do low level work due to increased efficiency and automation and – in theory – have been freed up from the burden of repetitive, awful jobs. Presumably, they also learned more advanced skills for other careers, or they are now simply unemployed. A term, and an assumption, I shall return to later.
The Arrival of Artificial Intelligence
Fast forward several decades from Henry Ford’s assembly lines, and we now face the next step; Industrial Revolution 2.0 – The Era of AI. This next step involves deeper automation through artificial intelligence, and it is already underway. AI is everywhere, and it’s getting smarter every day.
Recently, OpenAI was able to teach itself Dota 2 to the point of beating professional players consistently. This included using feints and other psychological tricks to manipulate its opponent. This is much more advanced than when Deep Blue became the first computer to beat a human chess champion, and it doesn’t require a super computer to run (a Mac or PC running Linux will do).
Through machine learning technology, AIs can not only learn from trial and error, but learn context, find patterns and predict outcomes. This enables it to better sort through all the possible decisions and pick the best one, which it will also learn from, and so on.
I predict that many jobs we now think of as strictly human, will be taken over by AI technology in the next decades. It has already begun in some industries, like software quality assurance, translation, data analysis, even marketing. Pretty much any job that can be reduced to a set of parameters to indicate success, could eventually be handled by AI.
There are obvious industries like logistics – self driving trucks never need sleep, and why not use robots to load and offload said trucks at the warehouse, which is also managed by AI. How about self driving garbage trucks with robots to handle and empty the bins. No humans needed.
Let’s use Board Game Design as a less obvious example – an AI could analyze and play hundreds of games to learn how the systems work. Then compare that data to other data points (sales, reviews, common complaints about games, etc.) to learn good from bad. Finally, based on this data, the AI can design new game systems at a rate no human could ever keep up with, including preliminary playtests. A human editor can adjust the AI parameters if none of the games are that great, and the next day a whole new slew of iterations are ready to test. Add a 3D printer, and it might even make a prototype for you to try.
With this approach, you will get a myriad of products and very little innovation (the AI might accidentally innovate game mechanics, for example, but it would be a side product). Innovation then comes from how humans teach/train the machine.
Bartenders could be replaced by AIs who remembers your name, favorite jokes, drinks and songs on the jukebox – it can even suggest people to talk to, who share your interests, all in a tone of voice that is custom generated to your taste. It will also measure any loss of balance you might display, and cut you off when you’re too drunk. Once we can design them to look cute enough, you won’t care that it’s not a person – you’re not there to see the bartender after all.
Another example of what AI might do in a few years is Movie Editing – an AI can analyze the editing of countless movies and compare cutting techniques with how well different scenes were received. It can learn to adapt to genres and themes, follow the soundtrack, etc. and within a few hours create multiple rough cuts of an entire movie.
Again, you are not likely to see a lot of innovation, and the final cut would likely still need to be tweaked by a human. But the number of hours saved equals considerable cash savings, and we all know that given enough time, even the final edit by a human would be removed in low budget productions. Animated movie? A team of AIs could do the whole thing, from script to edit, even computer generated voice over!
In other words, there are thousands of jobs and career paths that will be changed forever by artificial intelligence and machine learning, exactly like manual labor was changed by early automation and robotics. One major difference is, that the AI revolution will happen at a much faster pace. This leaves us with some questions to consider, and we should consider them sooner rather than later.
Did I mention that Google designed an AI to help them build better neural networks, and now it’s better at it than their own engineers? AIs building AIs better than humans can – it’s a thing.
The Grander Vision
I am a proponent of AI and machine learning; I’ve even played around with it a little for fun. I find myself seeking some deeper answers to where technology could take us as a species. No doubt, there are problems associated with it, but by thinking about long term goals, it becomes easier to fit technology’s place into the bigger picture and hopefully find solutions to those problems.
If technology were to replace 50% of all jobs within 50 years, what do we do with all the unemployed people?
It’s time to rethink what unemployment means. By that, I mean that if the goal of technology is to free humans from doing work they don’t want to do, that in turn must come from wanting to free up our time. In other words, a society where most people are technically unemployed because of successful technological advances is actually the goal!
The problem is, that this goal is in conflict with many building blocks of society, where unemployment is typically associated with failure of some sort (you lack skills, education, experience, have health issues, etc.), and there is a lot of status associated with job titles. But if freedom through automation is achieved, unemployment becomes an expression of that freedom (to pursue your interests).
It also does not mean that people stop working. Most of us like to make things and to feel productive, and this will never change. This is where innovation comes into the picture again. And sure, some people are content to watch movies all day, but if we don’t need to work, why shouldn’t they?
Well, how would they get paid? How would they pay their bills?
This is another realm, where technological advances are in conflict with traditional capitalist thinking, namely that you have to work to earn an honest wage. I challenge that notion. If there is no need to work, no one should have to – but those that want to, should be encouraged and rewarded. And if we can lower production cost of living through technology, money becomes less important.
I am a firm believer in rewarding those that go the extra mile, and even in my imagined tech utopia, that is still a necessary and good component. If you do want to work, you should get rewarded for it – and I think it’s necessary to scale that reward with the contribution made, to keep talented people interested. Note that rewards can come in many forms, not just monetary.
I propose that we use technology to work towards a society where traditional work is voluntary but rewarded, and those who can’t or don’t want to contribute in that way, are able to choose that without poverty or shame. A passion-driven society, where we hand over the boring stuff to machines and use the gains to raise living standards of all, starting with those whose jobs we are eliminating in the process.
Is it just around the corner? No. The day may never come at all. We could continue to drive towards faster, more profitable ways to work without considering the human (or planetary) implications, as we have in the past, but I don’t think that will end well. I prefer the alternative, where we embrace the future but seek to shape it in a way that benefits everyone.